Can this biblical bird return to its ancestral home in Israel?
The female ostrich slowly approaches her nest like a prima donna making a grande entre. Bending her long neck downward in a graceful S curve, she surveys a mass of eggs. About 15 of them are clustered in the center of the nest--a shallow scrape in the ground--and another 27 lie in the vicinity. She moves her long legs cautiously on either side of the central pile and subsides gently. Using her neck and chin, she tucks a few outlying eggs beneath her, then fluffs out her brown-gray, feather-duster wings and settles down.
The massive bird regards me with large, deep-brown, long-lashed eyes and vague disinterest, but no sign of animosity.
For this I am grateful, since an ostrich in defense of its nest can turn into 140 kilograms (300 lbs.) of lethal fury. One slash with its steel-hard toenail, for example, will disembowel a lion. My lady ostrich, fortunately, seems indifferent to my presence and half-dozes in the warmth of the desert sun.
In the distance grazes a herd of wary, fawn-colored onagers--"a wild ass used to the wilderness," according to the Bible. Rare dorcas gazelles are as delightfully graceful as in Solomon's Song of Songs: "My beloved is like a gazelle." A small herd of milky-white oryxes with long, slender horns rests in the shade of a wide-spreading acacia tree.
This is Hai Bar ("wildlife" in Hebrew), a unique reserve in the hot rift valley called the Arava, 40 kilometers (25 mi.) north of Elat. For nearly three decades, Hai Bar has served as the Noah's Ark of Israel. Here, biologists have gathered, fed and attempted to breed many of the 130 species of animals mentioned in the Bible, including the ostrich. Several species have been successfully reintroduced to the wild, but rising costs are forcing Israel's Nature Reserves Authority to phase out the program during the next decade. With a stable population of about 40 ostriches now in place, officials must soon decide whether to attempt a reintroduction of the bird to its ancestral homeland.
At the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia, the Middle East was once immensely rich in animals. Behemoths (hippopotamuses) lazed in the vast swamps of the northern Jordan Valley. Mighty aurochs, ancestors of all domestic cattle, roamed the great forests and glades. Large herds of antelopes and gazelles browsed on the savannas, and lions and leopards stalked them. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recorded that during a day's hunt King Herod the Great killed 40 different kinds of animals, from lions to wild boars, from gazelles to ostriches.
Ostriches were common then and their range immense: from today's Morocco to Egypt, from southernmost Africa through the Middle East to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), ancient Persia (Iran) and Arabia. They were avidly hunted. Their plumes were in great demand for the majestic fans of the pharaohs and as panache for the headdresses of nobles and knights. Ostrich eggshells, set in gold or silver, became the precious goblets of the rich. The Egyptians, noting the perfect balance and symmetry of the ostrich feather, revered it as a symbol of truth and justice.
But ostriches were hard to hunt, for they are built for speed. All other birds have three or four toes. The ostrich has only two toes--one small, the other enlarged into a powerful flat foot to which it owes its scientific name: Struthio camelus, the camel (footed) ostrich. It has long legs; bulging, naked, muscle-packed thighs; a periscope neck lifting its head 2.5 meters (8 ft.) above the ground; acute hearing and excellent eyesight.
Those tennis-ball-sized eyes--the largest of all land animals in the world--virtually fill the head, leaving space only for a walnut-sized brain. ("Proverbially," said the famous sage of the Middle Ages, Albertus Magnus in 1260, "the ostrich is a dimwitted bird....") It may not be overly bright, but when in danger or …